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Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510-1592)

The Journey of Jacob c.1561

RCIN 402928

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This painting illustrates the biblical story of Jacob: Jacob served Laban for fourteen years, married two of his daughters, Leah and Rachel, and won most of his sheep and goats by a trick. After these events he set off secretly with his wives, children and livestock to return to his father, Isaac, in Canaan (Genesis 21: 17-21). This painting was previously thought to depict Abraham’s journey into Canaan, with Sarah and Lot (Genesis 22: 1-5) or the return of Moses into Egypt (Exodus 4: 18-20). This confusion supports the contention that Jacopo used biblical texts above all as pretexts for his newly invented genre of pastoral painting. These landscapes were particularly admired by his contemporaries; in his brief appreciation of Jacopo Bassano, Giorgio Vasari mentions his depiction of ‘animals of all sorts’. A larger version by Jacopo of this subject with a more spacious twilight landscape (1570s; Palazzo Ducale, Venice) was eloquently described by Carlo Ridolfi, who remarked that the artist made such Old Testament pastorals for his own pleasure, only occasionally selling them to dealers. The coarsely woven canvas may have lost some of its lower edge; the original format is recorded in the workshop replica attributed to Jacopo’s son Francesco. Some of the greens glazes have discoloured to brown and many half-shadows have darkened, giving the landscape a more desolate appearance than originally intended. Some pinks in the clothes have faded, the scarf round Jacob’s neck was executed in red lake. In many areas, however, the freshness of Jacopo’s touch has been perfectly preserved. He painted confidently in brushy strokes over an ochreous brown ground. The simplicity of the landscape contrasts with the strong pink, blue and green of the foreground figures and the many touches of white highlight. Here his virtuosity of handling is apparent in his ability to paint shimmering passages of light and half-shadow on cloth; he shows the subtle shades of twilight falling across from the right and catching the group with touches of highlight. The restrained use of strong colours and the softness of the light convey the atmosphere of Jacob’s secret escape. Jacopo’s habit of experimentation, changing styles to suit commissions, makes this work hard to date. The painting has Mannerist qualities typical of his early work and learned from Parmigianino and Schiavone - long, sinuous figures arranged in a decorative, stylised fashion. It also has a naturalism of light and setting, which Jacopo rediscovered later in his career through the study of Titian’s pastorals, probably known to him through drawings and woodcuts. A date of c.1561 can be suggested by comparison with 'St John the Baptist in the Wilderness', securely dated 1558 (Museo Civico, Bassano); 'Saints Justina, Sebastian, Anthony Abbot and Roch' of c.1560 (Santa Giustina, Enego); 'The Crucifixion' of 1562-3 (Museo Civico, Treviso) and the 'Adoration of Shepherds' of c.1562 (Palazzo Corsini, Rome).